The Enemy Within
Voluntary celibacy pays spiritual rewards
A faithful member of my writing critique group was moving out of state, so we threw her a goodbye party.
I sat at the end of a foldout table on a spacious patio, talking with a newer member, a man in his eighties writing a novel based on his experiences as a court judge. Unlike the others who knew me from critiquing my autobiography, he wanted to know why I remained unwed in my late 70s.
“So why haven’t you ever married?”
I paused at his question as I chewed on a raw carrot, then said, “Well, combating the enemy within has demanded my full attention. A wife and children would have seriously distracted me.”
“What enemy? I don’t understand,” he said, leaning forward to hear me despite all the chatter.
“Within each one of us rages a battle between the flesh and the Spirit. In my youth, on my being gifted that insight after a nervous breakdown, I chose to subdue all my carnal instincts.”
“I presume that includes sex. You aren’t a priest but you practice celibacy, anyway?”
“I’m not a virgin but I’ve abstained for over thirty years. It’s not been easy. As you know, priests take a celibacy vow, but ritual ordination doesn’t confer higher degrees of self-mastery.”
“Shouldn’t the Church allow its priests to marry instead of imposing the celibacy vow?”
“The Orthodox Churches allow marriage before ordination. But even so, sexual scandals occur with married and single clergy, though fewer than among their Roman Catholic counterparts.”
Another person sitting next to him overheard and interjected, “No, the marriage of priests wouldn’t help. Sex abuse of minors is common within both religious and secular organizations.”
I added, “And the Orthodox Churches have been no exception. In 2013, they forced an Orthodox Bishop in Serbia to resign after a video emerged of him having sex with underage boys. Later allegations came that he had organized frequent orgies with minors. In 2015, the Greek Orthodox Church convicted a priest ― who could have married before his ordination ― of sexually assaulting a boy. Even married family men have kneeled to the enemy within, guilty of incest, pedophilia, and pornography.”
“So, why all the litigation and media focus on the Catholic Church?” he asked.
“Catholicism has been the hardest hit for being the easier financial target. But every major religion grapples with child sex abuse. I don’t think pedophilia has a religion.”
“So, that’s what you mean by the enemy within,” the judge realized. “How can a youth subdue his natural reproductive instinct? I see it as the most powerful force on Earth.”
I let his question hang there awhile. The view from the patio in the afternoon light was magnificent― a perfect day. A hummingbird hovered, sipping honey from the blossom of a red hibiscus flower.
“Making oneself a eunuch is a perilous path not meant for everyone. As Jesus said, ‘Let him accept it who can’ (Matt 19:12). One must exercise great care in charming that hooded cobra with mortal venom, that deceitful serpent coiling within our limbs.”
“So, are you telling me you’ve done this?” he asked, skeptically raising his thick eyebrows.
“It’s become for me a lifelong work-in-progress. Only by God’s coaching can a weak, sinful soul achieve higher degrees of spiritual perfection. It takes many years of fasting, prayer, and perseverance resisting in our daily conduct the hypnotic sway of that ancient serpent.”
“So that’s why you’ve sacrificed what’s sweet and natural, that God meant us to enjoy?” he asked in genuine interest, with sincerity in his eyes, not the mockery of a self-indulgent critic.
Some at our table were coming back with second helpings of a scrumptious cheese pie I had baked for dessert, irresistible when topped with whipped cream and delicious strawberries.
“Nature compensates us in secret for any unheralded sacrifice we make of la dolce vita. It’s like a weightlifter who privately denies himself sweetened junk food for only a healthful diet. Rather than sit before a television all day long, he endures the anguish of running daily to keep in shape. He suffers a lactate burn lifting weights for muscle mass. Those sacrifices increase his willpower and self-image. He may hope to perform some heroic deed or to serve society as a firefighter. Whatever his social goal, self-denial has increased his willpower and his options.
“It takes much fasting and prayer, abstaining often from the sweet pleasures of this world, to achieve wonderworking faith. Saints like Francis Xavier, Vincent Ferrer, and Francis de Paola are but three of over 400 canonized miracle workers who could heal the sick and raise the dead. Jesus promised such power from on high to those who would suffer their own cross and follow him.”
Entering the house the judge said, “I guess my lovely wife and I practice celibacy.”
I smiled and said, “Happily wed but sexually abstinent? You’re a stronger man than me.”
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